‘They will butcher our stories’: How British TV is failing Muslims | Television

tthere is no glass ceiling that prevents people from ethnic minorities and Muslims from entering the TV world. It’s more like a concrete ceiling, given how difficult, painful — and sometimes ultimately pointless — it can feel to burst through.

There are more and more examples of Islamic creatives helping television to eschew offensive and downright harmful stories in favor of exciting, multifaceted Muslim stories. In the US, shows like Ramy and Ms Marvel have given Muslim talent the space to tell stories that are fearlessly authentic. In the UK, comedy is making particularly impressive strides, with groundbreaking shows such as Guz Khan’s Man Like Mobeen and Channel 4’s Bafta-winning hit We Are Lady Parts – which has been renewed for a second series. Other programs from Muslim writers are on their way from the BBC and ITV, including Count Abdullah, who follows a British Pakistani Muslim junior doctor who is bitten by a vampire.

But when it comes to the British drama’s approach to Muslim stories, there is still a long way to go. When ITV’s Honor dramatized Banaz Mahmod’s real-life honor killing, the story was told from the perspective of the white female detective investigating the case rather than the woman at heart. Too often this is the kind of story dramas opt for when portraying Muslims: one with a twist of crime, like the Rochdale grooming scandal. During the trial of Darren Osborne, the terrorist who drove his van into Muslim worshipers outside the Finsbury Park mosque in north London, it was revealed that the BBC drama Three Girls’ rendition of the Rochdale sex ring for child abuse caused him to ” became obsessed”. with Muslims.

“When people ask about Muslim stories, they tend to look for stories that fit their narrow preconceptions,” said Faisal A Qureshi, a screenwriter and producer who has worked in the industry for more than 20 years. In 2005, he tried to write a thriller for the BBC with an Asian female lead, but was frustrated by narrow-minded views of how Muslims should be portrayed on TV.

British comedy makes progress… Man Like Mobeen. Photo: Paul Husband/Tiger Aspect

“During the script development session, they basically said we should make this about honor killings. I just went no and the project died. We wouldn’t have had that conversation if I had made the character a white woman.”

Improvements have occurred in the years since. Themes around terrorism, radicalization and honor killings are falling out of favor, but prejudices about what a Muslim story should look like linger.

“The feedback I get rarely questions my writing skills. The problem is always the themes I want to explore and the way I want to portray my Muslim characters,” says screenwriter Zainab (not her real name). The situation has become so bad that Zainab now writes characters who are South Asian but not Muslim. “The kind of stories that producers and commissioners want right now are not a reflection of my Muslim friends and family. I don’t want to write Muslim characters because I know those in the industry will butcher their stories.”

Another problem that writers trying to create authentic Muslim characters struggle with is the pressure on them to shed their identities. From Netflix’s Elite to Hulu’s Hala, the story of a hijab-wearing Muslim woman who takes it off after falling in love with a non-Muslim is well-behaved. “It seems the only way to be a Muslim on screen is to either renounce your religion, or be a lapsed Muslim,” said Zainab, who is once working on a book-to-film adaptation. worked, only for the producers to turn around and claim the characters’ Muslimness made them uninteresting.

“They called a Muslim character no premarital sex values ​​boring and wanted to get rid of that. They were looking for the Muslim flea bag and didn’t care about the intricacies of the Muslim experience,” she says. “If you have a disabled character in a story, the subversion is not for them to miraculously become resilient. So why is the subversion for Muslim characters for them to shed their Muslimness?”

There are many Muslim screenwriters with projects in development, but the number of commissions is low, especially in drama. “Commissioners are often afraid to take ‘risks’ with stories they don’t recognize – or that have nothing to do with their world,” said Raisah Ahmed, screenwriter and director from Scotland. “Our experiences as Muslims only seem like a risk to people who don’t understand our community and have never worked with us on a meaningful level. We are not a risk. We just don’t have enough people in those roles to go, ‘Oh yeah, this story makes perfect sense. Of course we will commission this.’”

Another problem for Islamic creatives is how industry perceptions affect the type of work they can get. “I had an interview for a book adaptation where the main character was sex-positive — which I was eager to explore,” Zainab says. “When the producers realized I was Muslim, it became a sticking point. I felt like I assumed that as a practicing Muslim woman I wouldn’t be able to write this story. They asked me to write a page on how I would approach this story from a sex-positive angle. Why should I jump through extra hoops to prove I can write a sex-positive character?”

The lack of representation of Muslims — and members of other BAME communities — on TV is something broadcasters have promised to change. In 2020, the BBC announced its £100 million Creative Diversity Fund, which it says will fund more diverse stories and talent, both on-screen and from a production perspective. It is far from the only initiative, with ITV pledging £80million for a similar plan and a £30million pledge from Sky to improve its BAME representation.

Still, there is skepticism as to whether this money is being spent well. “Significant pots of money are available, but it is not being spent,” said Sajid Varda, a producer, founder and CEO of the UK Muslim Film charity. “There seems to be uncertainty about how it should be allocated due to the discrepancy between creative diversity leaders and commissioners.

“The other challenge is with board members and departments reluctant to take a chance on projects brought to them by talented BAME indies. They find it easier to green out projects from well-known networks, provided they hire freelance BAME talent. They don’t know how to give assignments to people from different backgrounds.”

We Are Lady Parts, a show to which all Muslim stories are increasingly compared.
We Are Lady Parts, a show to which all Muslim stories are increasingly compared. Photo: Laura Radford

One of the biggest barriers to adopting authentic Muslim stories is the idea that the British public is not “ready” for it. GB News and talkTV both crashed and burned after discovering that the audience for “anti-woke” programs is very small. TV executives seem to be leading the way in politics. Like our politicians’ obsession with targeting the socially conservative ‘red wall’ voter, who is caricatured as anti-woke and anti-immigration, TV commissioners see programming for central England and programming for diverse audiences as one another. exclude.

“Satisfying what the Commissioner wants, what the wider public wants and what the Muslim public wants is made impossible without serious concessions to the authenticity of our stories,” Zainab said. Screenwriter and theater maker Karim Khan – whose play Brown Boys Swim is set to open in August at the Pleasance Dome in Edinburgh – agreement. “They are afraid to get these stories on TV, unsure if our shows will be marketable and well received by the British public.”

The risk averse nature of commissioners leads them to rely on already successful shows. “Every Muslim creative you speak to, especially women who write female stories, is compared to We Are Lady Parts,” Ahmed says, “even if their stories are completely different.”

Such a burden of expectation can weigh heavily. “We need to get rid of the idea that one Muslim story, because it comes from a community that is so marginalized and underrepresented on screen, should tell every story for all Muslims and be everything to all of them,” says Kaamil Shah. , author of the soon-to-be Count Abdullah. “Count Abdullah is not the Muslim story. It is a muslim story.”

A large-scale drama at the end of 9 p.m. with an authentic Muslim story or Muslim head remains elusive, but positive steps are taken. Dramas such as The Bay and The Good Karma Hospital have given Muslim writers the opportunity to write authentic Muslim storylines. And with the arrival of Ms. Marvel, there’s a chance that bold, authentic, big-budget Muslim stories will get the green light in the UK.

“No one asks about my influences or my writing process or my actual work. They only ask me about its Muslimness or its Asian femininity,” says screenwriter and journalist Amna Saleem. “I hope we can get past these conversations with Ms. Marvel coming out.”

Ultimately, the more success Ms Marvel enjoys, the better the prospects for British dramas that tell authentic Muslim stories. Or, as Khan puts it: “It’s going to be a game-changer. It’s in mainstream space and it seems to be a ‘risk’ that is already paying off.” Here’s the hope.

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